Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Apple Does Not Fall Too Far From The Tree!

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While growing up in India, I went through a phase which I am sure a lot of readers can relate to. Initially, I was under the deep impression of my father and how he related to the rest of the world.

As I grew up, I started questioning his worldview and sometimes what could be perceived as preconceived notions. It was a phase where I started interacting with the outer world and developed the belief that everyone in the world was good.

Now, 20 years since I left my home and hometown in India, I have a perspective on this belief: It was delusional but had been a good start. As life experiences came during work and accelerated since starting my own business, this delusion started shattering.

Meditation and the spiritual path did immensely help. In simple words, business introduced me to reality, and spirituality stopped me from being paranoid. So all in all, it’s been a potent combination.

Man’s Conflict With Nature

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I am a long, long-time vegetarian and a pacifist.

A few days back I came to know that there was a bee infestation in one of our houses. Its inducts are outside, so there is no interference in our day to day existence. Initially I thought to get them smoked out, but later decided against it. The logic was the lack of necessity.

I take a balanced approach towards animals erring against violence. When we moved into Saratoga last year, we had the challenge of how to handle a potential termite infestation. In that case we decided to get the house treated. Eventually inspections found no termite issue, so we did not have to deal with this problem. But what’s important is the forethought which went into it. It was impractical and not acceptable to let a multimillion dollar house get eaten by termites. But a bee colony on the periphery of our house and being there for only a few months is a different ballgame.

On a similar note, one issue which bothers me a lot is America’s addiction to meat. The kind of cruelty against animals which takes place on a daily basis in slaughter houses in middle America will put even the Devil to shame. Most people eat meat two to three times a day turning a blind eye to how the meat gets to them. Anyone interested in working conditions and animal cruelty in slaughter houses should read the book “Fast Food Nation.” There is also a movie made with the same title.

My problem with meat eating is the lack of necessity. In the distant past before agriculture was invented and nature provided enough edible plant products, it was a different thing. But today, we are not hunter/gatherers anymore. Now people have a choice to eat healthy vegetarian food, which is plentiful.

Let me contrast with another case. Say you are Polynesians fleeing religious persecution from Asia. You have two choices, either get killed or take voyage upon the sea, in small boats and to unknown destinations. You may get killed either way, but in the second case it’s only a possibility; in the first case guaranteed. Now, upon the sea, how do you survive? Obviously you’ll eat fish and other seafood. You either eat them or not survive.

On a side-note, some people argue that eating white meat is a smaller sin than eating red meat. If sin is correlated to damaging your body, it probably holds true since red meat does do havoc to your health and especially your heart.

Nature has various food chains for animals based on necessity. A lion has to hunt for it’s prey and cannot show compassion in the act. That being said, when a lion’s stomach is full, it will not even look at a potential prey. Some people say that this food chain keeps the animal population under control.

Meanwhile, humans have crossed the limits of necessity and cause havoc simply because of habit.

War! What’s It Good For?

I recently finished “War! What Is It Good For?” by Ian Morris.

I always suspected that war played a bigger role in our societies than what it is given credited for. The reason is obvious, war is ugly and full of bloodshed. So it is a daunting task to impartially assess a war’s impact on human society, but Ian Morris has been successful in doing just this.

Ian has divided wars into two categories: productive wars and unproductive wars. Every war is ugly, but does it help evolution, or hurt? According to the author, productive wars have been primary responsible for the evolution of all human society.

Wars make states and states make peace

Wars have been the primary reason that societies have become bigger. The reason being is that winners include losers in their societal fabric. Of course, it goes without saying it’s always on the winner’s terms.

There was a time a few centuries back when Islam and Farsi were the fastest growing religion and languages in India. A lot of people were being converted forcefully, but a lot also converted willingly for upward social mobility. It was cool to know Farsi. And being Muslim was a sure-shot ticket to getting higher posts in Mughal Darbar. There are instances of whole kingdoms adopting Islam, like Janjua Rajputs in 12th century AD.

According to one source, the literacy rate for Muslims in India was close to 100% in the early 19th century. In less than 25 years it has dropped to 15%.

Perhaps 100% may seem an exaggeration, and it could very well be, but let’s think about it for a minute. In the 18th or early 19th century India, your community was elite. The language you spoke at home, i.e., Urdu/Farsi, were official languages. The criteria to be called literate was maybe just knowing how to write your name. But now it does not seem that big a deal.

What changed it? The British invasion. Now English became cool, and not Farsi. Christianity was the new religion, though the British were not so keen on conversion rather than on doing business.

Now today in India hardly anyone speaks Farsi. Urdu, which was a fusion of Farsi and Hindi, is still spoken primarily by Muslims. Urdu has also benefited from being extremely close to Hindi in its spoken form.

The British pushed for a soft power of English culture rather than a forced conversion route of Mughals. That does not mean that Christian missionaries did not play a role. But they did not wreak havoc like the Portuguese did in Goa.

Why I brought up these points is to prove that winners get to choose how to treat losers.

Ian brings up a distinction between stationary bandits vs roving bandits. Roving bandits would attack people, kill them and take away the booty. This way they would create wasteland. What they realized very soon was that the better idea is to take care of your subjects rather than killing them. This way you can keep looting them; and this is what led to stationary bandits.

Stationary bandits also had an incentive to keep roving bandits at bay. One example that Ian used was how the British effectively ended the presence of thugs in India who were highway bandits (roving bandits) who used to rob and kill travelers.

In essence, the British being stationary bandits, had a huge incentive to stop roving bandits.

Why I write?

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Fareed Zakaria wrote an excellent piece about the power of writing.

I have been thinking from last few days about how people used to streamline their thoughts before writing became mainstream. My guess is through brainstorming. Another point can be that since amount of information available was much less at that time, it was perhaps easier to express.

There is, in modern philosophy, a great debate as to which comes first – thought or language. I have nothing to say about it. All I know is that when I begin to write, I realize that my “thoughts” are usually a jumble of half-baked, incoherent impulses strung together with gaping logical holes between them. It is the act of writing that forces me to think through them and sort them out. Whether you are a novelist, a businessman, a marketing consultant or a historian, writing forces you to make choices and brings clarity and order to your ideas.  – Fareed Zakaria

The quote above is the best ever I have seen about power of writing. For me, writing is the best self-expression tool. It’s also deeply satisfying.

It’s also true that a lot of finer ideas have come to me when I started with an idea and started writing about it.

The same logic holds true to an extent for speaking also. It’s tough to get audience for your content though and that also when you feel like. It can be accomplished with writing, as long as you have pen and paper and computers these days (though I have not completely abandoned pen and paper).

In reality, the power of writing goes far beyond aforementioned points. In my case I write to live and live to write (slight exaggeration).

Another interesting aspect about writing is that I can not force myself to write. I tend to write when I have strong thoughts and strong emotions together. There is no other way I can write even if I am paid a million dollars.

The previous point got me to think that are writers happy people. The kind of deep satisfaction which self-expression brings about is unimaginable. I think people for whom writing is culmination of a deep thought process and observations, are very happy while if someone is writing for a living because they have to write, it can be deeply mechanical and frustrating.

Virtues of Thoughtlessness

Let me start with an incident.

It was springtime in 1993 and I was busy preparing for JEE. It was six a.m. in the morning and I had to go and pick green leaves for our buffalo. For the uninformed, in India water buffalo are domesticated for milk (even more than cows), and I belonged to a community of herdsmen.

For some reason an idea came to my mind that for half an hour–which it would take to go and get green hay–I would let myself try to keep my mind without any thoughts. It was an awesome experience. and the peace I felt made a lasting impression upon me.

When at IIT, I initially got attracted to ISKCON, which was great but did not help me with supernatural disturbances. When I got introduced to vipassana, it acted directly upon this. The primary reason being that I am clairsentient, and vipassana essentially is about observing sensations in a balanced way.

After practicing vipassana for 17 years, I am getting attracted to thoughtlessness again. As I progress on the path, there should be a stage when thoughts would cease to exist while in a meditative stage.

While that does happen whenever the time is ripe, some conscious effort to keep the mind still is working out really well.

Limiting Thoughts

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Back in 1986, when I was taking a test one time, I had one essay left and five minutes to go. I knew that the essay could not be done in five minutes, so I did not attempt it. A friend of mine started two minutes after that and kept on working on his essay until the teacher actually came to pick up the answer sheets. As it was, it took the teacher a few minutes to collect the answer sheets from everyone after the bell had rung.

Sometimes, small things make a deep impact on your life, and this was one of them. What was limiting me was not the time restraints, but my limiting thoughts. I did not attempt the essay thinking that it would not be possible to finish it. Limiting thoughts do have their own weird logic (or lack of it), like here in my experience in college my not attempting to write the essay would be better than handing in an unfinished essay.

Actually it was just an afterthought. A limiting thought process comes along, however, with a gift, and that is in revealing one having a coarse brain! For the brain sometimes does not think deep enough. Because it’s easier and lazier not to do so!

Over the past weekend I was thinking why I had not been able to spend enough time working on our product from last week. The immediate thought which came to my mind was “You know what, you know you cannot do product and services together.” Again, limiting thoughts like this can sound so convincing, especially since they are also so convenient. However, within minutes I realized that it was the lazy me talking, and then I recalled the episode in 1986.

 

Crossing The Limit In Online Ads

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I have always been skeptical about the real impact of online paid advertising. My concern has been about ROI, but it now looks like ad networks have taken to desperate measures.

Here’s what happened with me today:

I am at the tennis court, wrapping up. Around 6:40 p.m. on Saturday. I thought about quickly checking something on the phone. In search results (from a search not related to tennis) the first result shows an ad stating, “Best tennis court lighting.”

But I have not searched for tennis court lighting for seven months.

Is it an attempt to make an ad contextual and relevant? Or blatant spying? “We know you are at the tennis court, based upon your latitude/longitude, which we are tracking without your permission. We also know it’s almost dark, therefore here’s how you can buy lights.”

Here they fail. Because the tennis court does have lighting. It’s just that I did not bother to turn it on as it was not dark enough.

My Days With RSS

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Narendra Modi’s amazing victory reminded me of my history with RSS (which insiders call Sangh).

I did my 13 years of schooling in a right-wing school which was part of the RSS’s educational branch called Vidya Bharati. As a benefit, I developed immense knowledge and perspective about Indian culture.

When I was in 6th standard in 1986 I started going to a Shakha (which literally means branch) in our neighborhood. Shakha is a unit of cohesion of Sangh in which local volunteers (called Swayamsevaks) meet every evening for one hour. They start with prayer, play games like Kabaddi and Kho-kho, have optional boddhic (knowledge sharing) sessions and end with a prayer. There is no concept of guru, and the saffron flag is considered guru.

A good number of teachers in our school were officers in RSS. Here, officers simply mean volunteers who have been given responsibilities based on their interest and merit. I did find meritocracy in RSS to be far better than even some volunteer-driven spiritual organizations.

In 1989 I went for their first officer course, which was for 15 days if I remember correctly. Interestingly, it was in our school itself during summer holidays. After that, I become head of my neighborhood Shakha.

Within a few months VP Singh became Prime Minister of India and he expanded an affirmative action scheme called reservation in India to include some more communities, mine being one of them. My dad was president of our community for Jaipur at that time. He did not discourage me from my participation in RSS, though there were signs that RSS was drifting toward opposing the new legislation at the time.

India in the late 80’s was very different from what we see today. It was full of unemployed youth who needed very little incitement to break the hell loose. Things went so bad that students were being pushed to self-immolate, some of them, ironically, from privileged classes.

There was a rally of reservation supporters at a big groundswell in Jaipur. The rally was, however, ransacked. Allegedly by RSS volunteers. This was the tipping point for me, and I drifted away from the organization I had liked so much. There were other circumstantial reasons as well, such as the fact that I had little time left to devote due to my needing to focus on my studies.

Both RSS (in terms of minorities) and its political branch BJP (in terms of both minorities and less privileged classes) have become more inclusive since then. I do not blame anyone for the overreaction of these Mandal days. For me, the issue was not who was winning the affirmative action game, but why it was being played in the first place. The reason was, I think, because of the size of the economic pie, which was very small due to the Nehruvian socialist model of development. The Mandal Commission’s recommendations were about government jobs. If there are clashes in society about who should have a better opportunity to get into government jobs, clearly there is something fundamentally wrong with the economic system.

Coming back to the RSS organization model, the way it was run made an everlasting impression on me. If anyone wants to learn how to run a volunteer organization, they should look toward RSS.

In RSS there is a class of volunteers who is called the Pracharaks. The Pracharaks take a vow of celibacy and dedicate their life to the organization. Narendra Modi is a Pracharak.

As it’s said in America, you may win elections from the left or right (depending upon your ideology) but must govern from the center. I am sure Modi will follow the same logic.

There is a lot of exuberance in India for Modi, as it was in the U.S. for Obama back in 2008. I personality like both of them, though I may not necessarily agree with their policies. Obama leans socialistic in a capitalistic America, and Modi leans capitalistic in a historically socialistic India.

I have listened to a few speeches of Modi’s in which he seems to have a balanced approach towards capitalism. As long as Modi focuses on capitalism and growth, keeps cronyism at bay and holds Hindutva at an ideological level, he’ll make a great prime minister, in my opinion.

Experiential Wisdom and Morality

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image courtesy: nsidc.org

The rules of morality, which are prevalent in all cultures, are made and established for a reason. The reason being that breaking such rules can lead to suffering and misery as well as to widespread criminality and chaos. At the same time, taking the argument for morality to the extreme can be detrimental and destructive. Too much suppression and moral regulating is dangerous.

So how do you find the middle ground? What works best is that you experience a vice just enough to realize its true nature. Every vice is kind of like sea ice. It looks shiny and solid but that part is only a few inches thick and is its superficial appearance. The moment you drive or dig deeper into it, you risk getting drowned or becoming frozen to death. This is the very reason that sages recommend not going near there and looking to see beyond a thing’s “surface appearance.” Good advice, but the issue with morality is that sometimes it can lead to suppression and a curtailment of personal freedom.

Do sages offer another choice?

Unfortunately not. Humans have a tendency to misinterpret things, especially when it’s convenient or opportunistic for them to do so. The Zen priest Osho attempted to delve into this territory, and got into big trouble. So the discernment and decision always have to be left up to the individual.

Buddha recommended doing these experiments at a contemplation level. Perhaps like visiting a morgue to see deformed dead bodies and then contemplating that this will be the final state of everyone, including even the most beautiful of women. And of course, even sages.

 

Profoundness of Nothingness

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During my spiritual journey, the concept I have found most profound is of nothingness. Buddha called it Sunyata (Sanskrit: Shunyata) which can be translated as zero or nothingness; but nothingness comes closest.

So what exactly is it and why it’s so profound? It is the destination of all spiritual paths. Different paths may call it different things, like meeting God, Jesus or Krishna. What becomes apparent as you walk on the path is that:

1. God or its equivalent does not exist

2. You do not exist.

Let me qualify both before you jump. When I say God does not exist, I mean He never existed. Not at least the way you always wanted Him to exist.

When I say you don’t exist, I mean that what we call I is just an illusion.

So in essence, there is no destination and if there were one, there is no one who could arrive at it. Then why all these paths and the journey? All these paths are there to make your realize this ultimate reality of Anatta (Sanskrit: Anatma). It’s easy to understand at the conceptual level, but that does not help. I will end the blog with what Buddha said about it:

n·etaṃ mama, n·eso·ham·asmina m·eso attā